How to Taste Olive Oil the Italian Way

Like many Americans, our college years were when we learned how to properly “adult.” This included cooking our own meals everyday.

As Northern Californians, olive oil became a key ingredient in nearly everything we made, from scrambled eggs to roasted vegetables. But, as broke students, we didn’t have the luxury to care where ours came from: When parents visited to take us to Costco, we bought the big bottle, poured some into a cruet and called it a day.

It was a trip to the Tuscan countryside that ignited our curiosity in how olive oil is made and its variation in taste. On an overcast spring morning, we headed up a winding hill in the Chianti region to Fattoria Lavacchio, where a tour of Italy’s only working windmill and an olive oil tasting were being offered.

Standing in front of the 40-year-old organic groves, our host described the four varieties of olives grown there. “The oil of the olive is like the sugar of the fruit,” he explained. Like grapes, smaller olives have a richer taste that makes them prime for pressing; larger olives, on the other hand, are juicier and better for eating.

After stepping inside the windmill – which was designed by Leonardo da Vinci and is in the process of being restored – we headed into the trattoria for our tasting. Over the next hour, we were given a step-by-step explanation of how to taste olive oil properly. Here’s what we learned.

First comes the pour. Our host started by pouring about a tablespoon of olive oil into small stemless glasses.

Then comes the swirl. Next, he explained that temperature is key. He demonstrated cupping the bottom of the glass with one palm and using the other to cover its top. We swirled the glasses as our hands transferred heat and aromas were released.

Next, you breathe. We stuck our noses into the glasses and inhaled deeply.

Time to taste. Our host instructed us to slurp a mouthful of the oil, allowing in some air to heighten the flavor. We moved it around on our tongues and exhaled out our noses.

Finally, you swallow. When we had sufficiently experienced the taste, we swallowed the oil, continuing to concentrate on its flavor.

Between each tasting, we nibbled on a piece of fresh bread to cleanse our palettes. One of the oils had a peppery sensation in our throats, so we were glad to have water nearby. Others were a bit more mild, with fruity and floral notes.

When the tasting was complete, our host drizzled olive oil and cracked a little sea salt onto the remaining bread, which we enjoyed alongside glasses of Chianti. Delizioso.

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